As you might know, I have spent the last three days or so down in London, partly to see Meursault play at the Old Blue Last on Tuesday, partly to meet some music industry people for various reasons and partly to catch up with a couple of old friends.
I used to live down there, as you probably also know, but only for about three or four years, and I moved up to Scotland about seven years ago now. Nevertheless it’s amazing how much affection I still retain for London, and it was really nice to be back, even if just for a little while.
There’s an odd sort of anti-London sentiment in a lot of people in Edinburgh, particularly amongst white collar workers, which I always found a little pathetic when I first started coming up here to visit Mrs. Toad. I guess a lot of people go down South, either don’t like it very much or don’t achieve what they wanted to achieve, and end up coming back feeling a little as if they have failed and end up resenting London for it.
Personally, I love Edinburgh, and I could well see why anyone would choose to live here over London, but the two places are so different I always found the competitive comparisons a little pointless. I definitely think you need a certain mentality to enjoy a place as crowded, as busy and as relentless as London, but I always found it pretty easy to ignore the hurly-burly and find my own peace and quiet even in such a crowded city.
By coincidence, one of the friends I was supposed to meet yesterday couldn’t make it, so I had four or five hours to myself, just wandering around on a gloriously sunny day and exploring some of my old haunts.
I used to get quite a lot of time to myself when I lived down there as well, because when Mrs. Toad and I were courting she lived up in Edinburgh, so we only saw one another every other weekend. That meant that every second weekend I didn’t really have that much to do, and I would often walk along the South Bank, dodge the hordes around the wheel and the galleries, and just enjoy watching the river.
I lived on the Thames at the time, on a canal boat moored at Nine Elms Pier, so the river was a huge part of my relationship with the city. Yesterday, with nothing much on, I wandered back down to the pier to see what had changed and watch the new residents pottering about on their boats the way we did when we lived there.
It was odd looking at the boat I used to own, and the rather drastic modifications which have been made since, as well as the Charles William, another boat I lived on for a bit, but with new owners eyeing me rather distrustfully as I stood up on the riverside walkway and just absorbed the sights of the pier and the river for a while. Mrs. Toad and I built our relationship while I was living on that boat, and we already knew we were in it for keeps even at that early stage, so it was both strange and nice to see it again.
The pace of development around there was a bit shocking though, with both the New Covent Garden Market and the industrial estate the pier backed onto both being razed to the ground to make way for massive, ugly glass behemoths full of over-priced flats.
So after that I decided to wander along the river towards the Southbank Centre where I was meeting another pal later. Along the way I stopped for an hour at one of the tapas places under the railway arches at Vauxhall – a place I love because of their bloody brilliant octopus in white wine, with paprika and rock salt. Vauxhall is a funny place actually, with huge Portuguese and gay populations, as well as the MI5 building just by the bridge, which makes for an odd mix of people at the various cafes under the arches.
After that I completed my wander along the river at a leisurely pace. A very leisurely pace. Particularly when I have time on my hands I must have just about the slowest amble of pretty much anyone I know, and that’s even more obvious on the South bank of the Thames around rush hour, with commuters barging along, tourists scuttling about, an infestation of joggers desperately trying to quash their self-loathing for a couple of hours, and cyclists all over the bloody place.
It can be fun to be the only person not in any kind of a hurry in the midst of busy people though; a sort of smug serenity can descend over you, which I kind of like. Particularly when I am sat at my desk, I am so bombarded with emails and obligations that any amount of time wasted sitting out in the garden in the sun comes laced with guilt, but on this occasion I genuinely had no need to make excuses – I had hours to kill and no way to make them productive, so I was able to truly enjoy purposelessness for the first time in ages.
And that brings me onto the one thing I always enjoyed the most about London: it’s just so fucking big. I have always lived in cities, so for all I enjoy the countryside a great deal, I am not someone who yearns to get away from the masses. In fact just the opposite: I tend to feel most comfortable with big, sprawling, messy city life.
The reason for this is related to how peaceful my day was yesterday: in cities that big no-one knows who you are, and no-one cares at all. There’s an odd kind of privacy in that. If anything makes me feel overwhelmed by modern life it is not all the shit happening everywhere, it’s the constant awareness of the needs and requirements of other people, and that constantly present sense of obligation in the back of your mind.
In London, however, where the antithesis of the Cheers theme song is true and nobody knows your name, I tend to find it easy enough to find isolation and peace, even amongst millions of people. And it is a wonderful treat, to be able to sit somewhere on a bench for an hour, watch the river go by and do not one single thing. Nothing. No phone shit because my battery was dying and I needed it to meet up with friends later, no checking emails, not even any sense of skiving because I couldn’t have done any work if I’d wanted to. Just a few hours of peace, watching the sun go down over the Thames, and total and utter anonymity.
With that kind of peace and quiet your mind wanders, and I found myself remembering all the wonderful times Mrs. Toad and I had spent in the city, walking back along the river from Borough Market to cook food together, and perhaps even more lovely was this: I was reminded of the inbetween weekends, when we didn’t see each other, and I would often just walk along the banks of the river by myself and sit quietly, enjoying that incredible feeling you get when even a few dates into a relationship you know with absolute certainty that you have found the person you want to spend the rest of your life with.
Mrs. Toad was actually in America on business while I was down in London, and we may have been apart again, but it was actually quite a romantic couple of days. In a slightly strange way.